Singles Going Steady. Rock Therapy At The Turf Club

ST. PAUL, MN DECEMBER 19: Ryan & Pony perform at the Turf Club on December 19, 2018 in St. Paul, Minnesota. © Tony Nelson

All Photos Courtesy of Tony Nelson Photography

Music is a healer.  There is science out there that says when a person sings, you can’t feel depressed.  The antidote of dance has been known since the dawn of civilization.  When I walked out of The Turf Club following Ryan and Pony’s Singles Going Steady party I was reminded.  And I was thankful.

December has been a tough one.  I lost my Mother.  A dear young friend lost her life in a senseless act of violence.  A co-worker lost her battle with cancer.  My wife fell on the ice and broke her arm.  If ever somebody needed a shot in the arm it was my own family.  Four or five hours in the friendly confines of one of my favorite venues on the planet was worth a month of therapy.

Singles Going Steady was a show concept.  Ryan and Pony Smith who front the Melismatics, one of the finest rock bands to ever call the Twin Cities home, built a five band line up.  They advised everybody that it was time to release a single.  Or singles.  In any case, create something new and present it.  So I walked in excited to hear what people had cooked up.

Let me just say that I knew a number of artists/bands involved.  At the very least, I’d done my homework and familiarized myself with You Tube videos or listened to tracks.  So I was excited.  I knew I would enjoy each of the five.  Three upstairs on the main stage.  Two, working between sets in the intimate Clown Lounge downstairs.  What I did not expect was five bands each blowing away already high expectations.

The night began with Saint Small, the subject of an in depth feature last week.  There’s been a kind of humility to this band which is still in its early stages.  They may masquerade as a bunch of hockey dads on a lark.  But that’s really not true.  All four have strong rock backgrounds and have spent plenty of time on stage.  I’d been listening to basement recordings and found them very much to my liking.  Had they been able to measure up to the recordings on stage I’d have loved it.  They were awesome live.  Tight, witty, edgy.  Most of all passionate.  When the volume cranked and they locked in the joy of what they were experiencing together just spilled from the stage.

Kris Gruen went to work down in the Clown Lounge.  He was joined by his friend Paul Casanova who provided some lead lines and harmony vocals.  The music was rootsy, engaging and intelligent.  About as different a vibe from Saint Small as you could imagine but quiet and engaging.  I enjoyed seeing members of other bands in the room listening.  It began to click with me that this was not simply five bands on a bill.  It was friends coming together to make music and to enjoy each other’s company.

Back upstairs Benjamin Cartel, former front man of Kaiser Cartel opened up with a big beautiful sound.  Joined on stage with Melismatics’ bass player Mark Wade, he had also managed to recruit long time Twin Cities percussion stalwart Pete Anderson.  Manhattan Mike complete the band on lead guitar.

All I knew about Cartel coming in, aside from listening to some tracks, was that he’d previously worked with the Smiths.  He made clear in his musings that he considered them the best of friends.  Before he was done I learned that it was in fact Cartel who was the nexus of friends.  He was the center of the circle.  Again, all of the artists were there to hear what he’d come up with.

I really loved Benjamin Cartel.  Rock for sure.  But a great sense of how to build a song with a strong sense of melody.  At times, echoes of New Zealand’s finest rock band Crowded House filled the room.  It’s a joyful sound.  At another point, I heard this wonderful Big Country guitar lick underpin a song.  All behind Cartel, who has obviously seen a stage or two over his career.

Revenge Wedding was up next and I must confess I missed most of it.  I kept trying to head down but there was this connection and party atmosphere going on.   It was hard to pull away from a number of great conversations.  I guess I kind of thought that this downstairs band was going to be acoustic and rootsy in the same way Gruen had been.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Young, hard rocking punk.  The good news is I see a Mortimer’s gig around the corner.  And I’ll be there for a full dose.

But I think everybody was there to see what Ryan and Pony had cooked up.  The main course was worth the wait.  Pony walked about in long blond locks, sporting a leopard skin unitard and big hat.  Melismatics/Soul Asylum guitarist arrived in his signature black and white stripes.  They came dressed to play.  And play they did.  With a vengeance.

There’s this consortium of rockers in the Twin Cities and Smiths may not be charter members.  But they’ve earned lifetime membership.  That three piece combo (again Peter Anderson sitting at the kit) rocked about as hard as I’ve ever seen anybody do in the Turf Club.  Patrons were just lit.  Dancing, smiling and looking at one another with big eyes. 

That band never missed a lick.  Every song was a delight.  One four song string in the middle of the set kicked off with a leaping, grinding instrumental that incorporated every kind of self-indulgent riff and pose you could ever want.   The three that followed showed a range and change of pace which didn’t slow things down.  It proved there are many ways to skin the cat when you want to blast rock and roll at an audience and force them to dance.  Good luck fitting these two into simple formula.

Here’s the thing about the Smiths.  On one hand, they are so Minnesotan in their sound and approach.  From Husker Du to Soul Asylum it’s part of a family.  On the other, when they step on stage they are so unlike most other Minnesota artists.  In most other situations, your eyes would tell you this was over the top.  An affectation.  But it’s not.  It’s completely authentic.  You’re not watching some great local players behave like rock stars.  You’re watching real life rock stars tearing it up in a small room.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve written before how much I enjoy Pony Smith’s work.  Husband Ryan probably gets more limelight working as part of Soul Asylum.  But she’s rock and roll royalty around here.  With the Melismatics she’s beating up her white Gibson SG or pounding on the keys.  I’d never seen her with a bass before the other night.  It’s obvious she’s just as comfortable with that as anything else.  I remarked to a friend that I could only think of two women in the Twin Cities who could pull off the kind of rock heroine image.  Pony and the ever-interesting Haley of Gramma’s Boyfriend.  We’re fortunate to have them and they are a joy to watch and hear.

Late in the set, the band dropped into Prince’s I Would Die For You.  Sheer rock party.  The grins on the people dancing in front of the stage went ear to ear.  Those in the back, quickly moved to the front to join the dance.  I looked over at the bar.  Not a single person was there.  The band had pulled every single person onto the floor.  I’ve never seen that before.

The crowd that showed up for the show was not large.  The place was about half full.  Initially, I was disappointed with that when Saint Small kicked things off.  But as the evening wrapped, I came to appreciate it.  People had room to dance and they did.  People had chances to wander and mix with other audience members and artists.  It had the feel of a great party.  The amount of horsepower coming back up from the happy audience was more than enough to motivate the bands.   It was obvious they were also playing for each other.  Sometimes there are concerts.  Sometimes there are large gatherings of people who feel like friends and great music is the focus of the evening.  That’s communal.  It’s personal and it’s something rare.  I was glad I caught it and shared it with friends. 

My only regret was that my Top 5 shows list had already been published.  Because somebody might have ended up getting bumped by an evening of Singes Going Steady.

I began by saying music was a healer.  The night went a long way to healing me.  It wasn’t just that I forgot my sadness for awhile.  It was more because it reminded me that there remains enough happiness and joy in the world to get up and do it again.